Thursday, October 12, 2017

Is It Really 'Just A Story'?

"It's just fiction, what's the big deal?"
"It's just a story, why are you being so critical of it?  Give it a break."
"It's a made-up world, you know, why is it irritating you so much?"

All are questions I- and my close friends- have heard multiple times.

People approach fiction differently.  Some see it as mere entertainment, to be enjoyed for a few hours and then left behind.  Some see it as escape, either from stress or from a darker life.  Others see it as a vehicle of social commentary.  Still others see it as an expression of a society, a weapon and/or a tool. 

For some people though, it’s something more than just an art form.  It’s a lifestyle, a passion, a great mirror that reflects the world– and themselves.

Without judging any of the other viewpoints, I’d like to expound on the last one and why I hold it.

Stories can change lives.

Once we read or watch a story, it becomes a part of us.  Whether it's only temporarily– for the duration of its being read– or whether permanently, something that we'll remember even when old and gray.  Fiction can inspire us to become better versions of ourselves, alert us to problems in the world we weren't aware of before, help us process our thoughts and opinions on an issue, assist us in dealing with a rough situation/grief/a hard life, or just make us draw a long breath and soak in the beauty of the story for a minute.  Beauty is vital to a balanced life.

Writing fiction is a craft.  True, it is an art, but it's also a craft in which there are standards of what is good writing and what is bad writing.  When a story has a good plot but is badly written, or when the writing is good but the plot is ridiculous, it falls short of the mark.  Yes, that irritates me, it even disgusts me at times, when it's plain that the author didn't care enough to put more time and effort into a story.  It's even more frustrating when authors perpetuate bad fiction, either because it was published by traditional houses and found a market or because with the rise of self publishing, literally anything can be published nowadays.

A good story doesn't just have some snarky characters, witty dialogue and a few unusual worldbuilding elements or relationships.  A good story is one that unites a unique plot (or an original handling of an old trope/story) with characters who feel like they could be real people, were you to walk into the pages of said story, enhanced by a setting that is vivid in its appeal to the senses, and all of it told, if not brilliantly, then well.

Granted, achieving that takes work, and I'm not at all implying slurs against amateur authors or their work.  I'm just describing why I take such a critical approach to evaluating literature.

For some people, they can read books, class them as entertainment, and turn away with a shrug.  But for myself and my closest friends, it’s never JUST fiction.  We don’t consider each and every one of the books we write to be a lightning bolt message from God or some social cause, but at the same time, it’s not merely a story to us.  Besides being a part of our souls, stories can change the world, one person at a time.  We write them with the hope that they'll live long in the memory of the readers, even if only because they're angry with us, the author.  (Hey, all the best books make at least one person mad.)

The good books, the ones I actually finish, and the ones I eventually re-read, those are the reason I read fiction.  And I look for the same quality in what I read that I strive for in what I write.

If there is no standard for which to strive, there is no bar to inspire us to reach higher.   If we're going to write and read fiction, let it be good fiction.  Let it do something to make our day brighter, not harder.  Let it give us something to take away and keep with us for the rest of our lives.

As Leo McGarry once said, in Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, "And let THAT be our legacy."